Why the United States needs immigrants

A young boy in a van headed for a detention center in Texas.
A young boy in a van headed for a detention center in Texas. Los Angles Times/TNS

The people who cross deserts and oceans to seek refuge and a better life in the United States are no threat to this nation's security or future.

The threat would be if they stopped coming.

We need immigrants. 

We need them to work, start businesses and pay taxes to support the baby boomers who are aging out of the workforce and into reliance on Social Security and Medicare.

A June 21 article in the Wall Street Journal explained the population shifts that are "reshaping the U.S. into a country with fewer workers to support the elderly."

In 1980, there were 19 adults age 65 and over for every 100 Americans between 18 and 64 — a measure known as the old-age dependency ratio and one that has undergone a sharp change in recent years.

In 2017, the number of Americans of retirement age had increased to 25 for every 100 of working age, according to newly released census data. By 2030, the census projects, there will be 35 oldsters for every 100 working age Americans.

In other words, unless you're hankering for robots (or no one at all) to care for you in your golden years, hope that the Trump-inflamed anti-immigrant animus subsides soon and Congress regains its bearings and enacts sane immigration laws and policies.

What's happening at the moment has left many Americans at a loss to recognize their own country, what with the kidnapping of immigrant children by the U.S. government and the deployment of the military to jail children.

In recent days, President Donald Trump has changed positions faster than the speed of Twitter as righteous outrage greeted his needless separation of families. Trump's basic theme — that Americans should revile dark-skinned immigrants — remains unchanged, however, and is creepily reminiscent of other populists who stirred the masses by scapegoating minorities, with eventual bad ends for all.

Even Trump acolytes, like U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, are distancing themselves from the president on the family separations, as Kentuckians protest the cruelty. But the Republicans who control Congress still cower before Trump's vile anti-immigrant rhetoric and absurd demand for a wall with Mexico.

There are reasonable arguments to be made for limiting immigration, most compelling, to protect the jobs of U.S. workers and to protect wages from downward pressure by competition from newcomers eager to work for almost any pay.

But in recent years the flow of people between Mexico and the U.S. has reversed with the U.S. losing more people to Mexico than it has gained. In the past, wages soared in a tight job market like today's. Unemployment is the lowest of the 21st century. But wage increases remain modest. 

Employers are responding to the shortage of immigrant and domestic labor, not by raising wages, but by turning to more automation. Economists are puzzling over why wages aren't increasing faster, but, at a time when Mexican immigration has reversed, we can safely assume that if immigrants are playing a role in the current wage stagnation it's only minor.

The Pew Center estimates that without immigrants the U.S. workforce would shrink by 17 million in the next 17 years. 

Don't look for young Americans to replace lost immigrants. U.S. women are having children at the lowest rate on record. The U.S. birth rate hit a 30-year low last year.  

Meanwhile, government officials recently said that Medicare and Social Security will have more money going out in benefits than coming in from workers sooner than previously projected.

Trump's words are making our politics ever more toxic. If he manages to shut down immigration, it would be economic poison as well.